Pieces, notes really, fragmentary speculations,remnants, a sense of the feminine under assault, and the drive to love…. Along with her novel A Question of Power, Bessie Head‘s letters and correspondences pose the toughest, most vital questions concerning race, class and gender, the troubled paths of the poetic imagination, and on the tangled, fraught (and yes, magical) ways that fiction saves its maker.
Not so long ago you asked me to give you a straightforward answer about my life, whether it was in danger, etc. Myfirst reply was that I could not but there are many people who query things because a person can’t go on forever saying – “I’m having a nervous breakdown” – and for how long that story has been going on till today I am so broken in health and mind that day to day living for me is really a slow, painful crawl with no end in sight to the agony, except that perhaps my death may end it all. It is not death that troubles me, but the events leading up to it and beyond it and that there are things seen, with complete blanks in between and that the things seen ought to be recorded for some sorrowful eternity for some single human mind to assess. I really long lost a capacity to make any appeal about my situation to the Gods because I have really seen no soul truly so good and unselfish as to be able to freely give me a helping hand or make some gesture of mercy or kindness to assure me, that although my work is done and over with and that my sun has set forever on the horizon, I can be released of the overpowering malice and viciousness which pursues me. It is that I hate, the eternal, propelling motion of the evil I have seen, as though it is such a sweet, horrific sensation, evil, that it can never be entirely done away with, that there must be some blur or blot or stain on what can be an age of great goodness and happiness for all mankind.
With the thoughts in this letter, I enclose a piece, notes, really, fragmentary speculations on events which took place here and in South Africa and which I tried to make coherent, with a number of errors in between. Entitled PATTERNS, PICTURES, IMPRESSIONS, it was first sent to my editor HOORAY who returned it with the comment that if such-like stuff had to get around I would simply be labeled nut, crack, lunatic, etc., and she said, as far as she was concerned, there was no such thing as God.
I pick up that remark a little further today because PATTERNS was written two years ago. No matter what others may say, I prefer to say what I have lived and suffered through. God, to me, as I evolve in outlook, is the totality of a number of great souls and their achievements. The achievements are not that of a single, individual soul but so many souls and to me that might be God or the Gods. The central part of my suffering was that, in some way, I gave the key position and the major trump cards to the person in PATTERNS referred to as the Long Profile. I think too, that before I met him, he was well aware of his own personality because he could, if he wished make these abrupt breaks into my life on an entirely mental plane.
But corresponding to the time I met the Long Profile, I also met the man Gilbert and he made no bones at all about breaking into my mind. He was just there, Gilbert, his soul like a violent wind around my ears. It was really the man Gilbert who shook me up to the realities of the situation but when looked at his face, he seemed totally unaware of all the things he had so urgently communicated to me. I was also aware, that in dreams the Gilbert man feared the Long Profile. Otherwise, he feared nothing else in heaven or hell. Enough to say that Gilbert finalised everything for me – the Gods are here and something unusual is cooking. It was at this point and a point beyond which I wrote PATTERNS that there was a definite and easy communication between the Long Profile and I. There were things he pointed out I could so easily appreciate and understand but they were more detailed and sharply outlined than usual, that coming events and possibly my role in them needed a sound, moral platform, totally unshakable – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not steal.
I got a real grilling over those three issues until the platform was so solid and unshakeable. I saw the point and appreciated it and also saw a movement ahead of the soul, so rapid, possibly so hair raising too because the experiences were accompanied by terrific fires and highly fearful physical sensations. Since I seemed to survive all the fire in my head, I kept quite silent and said not a word to anyone, proceeding with life quite normally. At the same time, the strange undercurrent battle I outline briefly in PATTERNS was going on and there was something else, the sheer starvation level of refugee life. The days spent flat on my back were more numerous than the days I could stand up.
During this period, the two men, Long Profile and the person referred to as the ”Deep Ridge” and the woman “Dan” were ever present in the impressions I received. The impressions from Long Profile were only moral. The “Deep Ridge”, the woman Dan and the wife of the “Deep Ridge” were a strange triangle. They perhaps did not seem aware of the Long Profile and I most certainly imagined myself very much in love with “Deep Ridge” whereas he and I and the wife and Dan were really re-living a strangely complicated drama. I for one committed a great crime at one stage where I killed the wife of “Deep Ridge”. I re-ran the story up to the point where I had a two sided experience. In the one picture I said to the wife of “Deep Ridge”: “Don’t worry. I’m going to push him to the test. I’m going to bring him to the point where he is about to kill you and see what he does.”
Then I went over to the “Deep Ridge” and said: “Okay, kill her.” He burst into tears, indicating that he did not want to. I must pause at this point and explain the “Deep Ridge” and his wife and my involvement with them, because sheer horror made the bloody drama run through my dreams for so long, it was half the reason I was slowly going mad. The main thing is, I pulled it out and saw it and re-ran a crime committed ages ago which backs up in a strange way, other parts of the drama, most pieces of which are totally missing, because it was always a case with Long Profile that I should see this but not that – this for his own horrific ends, the swine. In any case something terrible surrounded this man. My dreams about him were accompanied by a chorus of commentators who made loud remarks that he was the real murderer. Not to mince matters, I was the David of the Bible, who slaughtered Uriah to get his wife, Bathsheba. This Bathseba turned up in the form of the man “Deep Ridge” and the present wife was the great old general Uriah.
There was a shocking thing to this “Deep Ridge” man. He used to have a big, yellow light in his eyes and this caused all the commotion and fury and fury and hell that went on for four years. Because the light was solidly there all the time and this was what made me stand dead still wondering what it was but it certainly seemed most precious to me. All the while there was the terror of the commentators in my dreams. There was something else about the “Deep Ridge”. He never walked the way men walked but moved his hips from side to side like a woman, in a provocative manner, and it was only when the light was no longer in his eyes that I noticed this, otherwise I looked solidly at the light and saw nothing else. The woman “Dan” moved about a lot at this time in a fury: “Take him I say, he’s your man.” I paid no heed to her because of what I had lived through with her. It was as though I would never allow a power monger to advise me and there was Long Profile in the background. I paid good heed to him as I had become aware that he and I were the great, great Comrades of the centuries, the two sides of one great monastic coin – when he picked up mankind one way, there I was upholding the other end. He was at this point curiously moral and impersonal, often very beautiful in appearance and purpose. He also used to ask me all kinds of strange questions: “Will you stay on this earth for some time?” And I would reply: “No.” The Long Profile also seemed to have a passion for naming his date of death: ”Give me a hand here. I’m going to die in five years time.”
(He seemed to have second thoughts at a later stage because I clearly remember him lengthening the date. He is famous throughout history for these death dates and heavy, stage managed executions, with so many visions, revelations and what not, as to confound the minds of lesser mortals.)
At any rate I became highly alarmed at my involvement with this “Deep Ridge” man. There was what the woman Dan said. There was what I could see in his eyes. There were the commentators of my dreams. I also had no clue whatsoever why I loved him so much with so many accompanying phenomena from the earth. I said to myself: “I don’t care what is going on but I shall have no dealings with this man.”
(I shall come back to “Deep Ridge” again. Now Long Profile).
All proceeded well between Long Profile and I until the day the heavens were stormed. With me it was always a case of “see this, but not that.” I only saw the most excruciating, unearthly, blinding light and a storm rocked me from end to end. I’d stand up for five minutes and get knocked flat off my feet. Enough to say that i survived, somehow.
While I saw nothing, all the patterns and play of destiny unfolded before the Long Profile and his role in it and my role in it and the other giants who all worked to make up the soul of God. There was one thing Long Profile did after this insight. He turned round and tried to kill me, not by his hand but by my own hand, to force me into committing suicide. He kept the pressure of terror on me for two weeks or so using a strange theme: “You’re just a Coloured dog. You’re just a half breed, a shame and scum on the earth. You’re too funny for words.“ (I have often referred to myself as a half and half merely because I don’t care to get “in” to African society and I always think about my mother and the conditions of her death and the way I was born.) But it nearly drove me mad, because all people who look like me were paraded before me in one long nightmare. Some of their prejudices I knew as I had often been identified with them, and I always knew that most men of white and African parents, in South Africa, behaved like hybrid plants. They could not make babies with women but continually slept with their own sex. I took this as a strange outcome of political oppression, because most men, especially African men have a hard time asserting their manhood in South Africa. Who can when they are called “boy”? Knowing these things at first hand, I was struck off balance. I could do nothing before the terror. I don’t know what made him switch about but for about two nights he looked very shame-faced In my dreams and I gradually began to pull through after nearly being choked to death.
But this hatred of my appearance was thrown at me solidly for two years, in between so many things. The many things were the people and people who came rushing at me from all sides, all colours of the rainbow, all with the same appeal: “Help me, love me, protect me because I don’t feel safe living outside you.” Most times they simply threw their souls into my soul and I seemed to have just a big vacuum inside me that was swallowing up the whole world. There was this torrential rush of human souls right into me and above it all was the nightmare of nightmares – the Long Profile. That first time he tried to kill me, he exposed himself too much. Later he got a little clever and pulled out a woman and the “Deep Ridge”.
How many times I heard the words: “Help me. Love me.” But there was no one to whom I could in turn ask for help from the torture the Long Profile directed at my life. My most powerful protector, Gilbert, was terrified of him. Gilbert had done some bad things in his time (I shall explain later a little of what I felt). The thing is, the Long Profile said the same to me, before he saw everything: “Help me.” And I said: “I will.”
But once he saw the whole story, my death was so eagerly desired by Long Profile for possibly a number of reasons (Again these things were “see this, but not that”) :
The man I mentioned in PATTERNS as Jay, began to appear in my dreams. He wore the most stricken expression on earth but his face was the identical replica of Long Profile, who when placed side by side with Jay, also wore the most stricken expression on earth. There was the woman Dan between them.
There was the persistent theme – the man Jay was once so great that he and Long Profile, who always assorted himself as God, wore one face. The other thing the man Jay was insistent about was his love for Long Profile. The bang up in the show was the woman. I first placed her as Lucifer, but cut that when I kept seeing the man Jay. I thought the tag – brightest light in the heavens, applied to him. They said Lucifer was jealous of God but they said nothing about God being jealous of Lucifer – and over such a cheap, trashy power-loving woman and damn fool and nuisance!
I got so far with that story then the pictures blanked out totally. All hell turned loose on me. I faced the immediate and struggled to stay alive.
It is like this – there is the positive and the negative but both perhaps go together in some way, if the balance is right. For every great power that is created above, a corresponding evil of equal power is created. I was created somewhere after a bust up but the situation was so terrible that the greatest quantity of goodness was asked for. A woman corresponding to me was created at the same time, perhaps. She equals at the bottom, in her sex organs, what I equal in my heart but you might say we are linked in some way. This woman was the doom of Long Profile as I have no doubt that other silly woman was. This woman turned up in most of outstanding performances as the most exalted personality like Mary Magdalene, but there is a horrific side to her. She holds the keys to a kingdom of horrors as are hard to be believed, perversion of the most base degree, arrogance and class of the most stifling and oppressive. She was here somewhere in the Profile’s life and broke those links. One half of hell was that he was chasing that woman because an amusing side of this was how he repeatedly show me in dreams, how posh her sex organs were. True, I have never much lived with the bottom part of me. It is a blank and a mystery. But I know what I have up top, in my heart, so Long Profile put the “Deep Ridge” there.
The only possible explanation about “Deep Ridge” was like this woman and I. There were two men in him, that at the time I was created, there was created a personality of equal goodness with his counterpart of equal evil. Because where did the light come from, in a personality who was the universal symbol of prostitution? Because that was what Bathseba was to David, as I re-ran that drama. She pulled out temptation number one, he did not see it but she was the downfall of a mighty hero. The Gods don’t make you kill someone for the sake of personal greed but that Bathseba woman did. This may sound complicated the switch from male to female and back but it happens like that. I do carry a strong male element In me, but no matter.
The main thing is that the personality I was faced with was my real doom. At first Long Profile showed me his horror but once he saw everything, he hid most behind this “Deep Ridge,” using him to destroy me. I was confused. So many gestures made by the man I call “Deep Ridge” in PATTERNS were most noble. My second novel outlines the nobility, but some other personality was shining through him. It took a nervous breakdown and admittance to hospital to get Long Profile to pull out the other personality behind the prostitute.
I got that far. But a war of nerves goes on and on. I get brought to death’s door and then thrown back again with many cover up tricks. “Look, you are important in some way. I was only teaching you a lesson.”
This one sided battle with so many fatal swines, including Long Profile, should have driven me out of my mind except for all those other people: “Help me. Love me. Protect me.” No one answers my own cries. The malice and viciousness hold me in a fierce grip.
There are deeper shades to this whole story, in betweens I did not see but of one thing I became certain – Long Profile is a God who fell from a mighty height. He is on the way up. When he saw the whole story from his side, he only tried to eliminate me. Why? There is my own star, so many handed, the most extreme of it being the warrior aspect. They say of Mars, the planet of fire, the God of War, that his sun has a short rise on the earth’s horizon and sets with equal speed. Why can’t I let my own sun go down peacefully? I and my whole crew came into existence at the call of this professional appealer to the human heart – LONG PROFILE. How many have not jumped into the fire after him? I also think his incarnation as Jesus was not so much death for the sins of the world as for his own grievous errors.
Long Profile and I were always the great compliment of the spirit. He seems to think a time has come when he ought to eliminate me. As though I am the dog of the heavens, and all I stand for. It is alright if I do the filth, the dirty work no one will touch, while he poses in the sky with lily white hands.
Why this half-breed thing all the time? It is true my appearance is but why should he use it to throw me into death? Why did he pit the prostitutes and demons of sensuousness against me? The evils I have seen in hell have been so horrific that there are great grooves of pain in my head. We had an affection. If he had precious love for me, maybe, I have had precious love for a thousand more people and if anyone ought to have laid claim to my heart, it was Gilbert because Gilbert and I played out all the great love dramas of the world together – the events behind them greater than the two personalities involved. Gilbert had to learn to use the power of heaven, of which he has an over-abundance, not for pushing and personal gain, but for love and service. But I came to a parting of the ways with Gilbert because he is not my soul match and neither is Long Profile. What happens in the new age is mostly what happens between men and women who are beaming on the right wave-length and moving up together.
There is something else sung by Louis Armstrong – THE COLOURS OF THE RAINBOW, SO PRETTY IN THE SKY ARE ALSO ON THE FACES OF PEOPLE GOING BY…I represent that, no matter how ugly I look and I have already seen of all the people who came rushing to me, that people and their real soul matches are of all colours of the rainbow.
Tom, I have worked out that situation. It can all turn out well but this incoherent letter is really to tell you a little of the horror I have lived in for so long. There was poverty and bare subsistence living. There was all this going on as well. PATTERNS is a supplement to my letter. I tried in so many ways to work myself out of the tangle of viciousness. I all along knew of my real relationship with Long Profile. I do believe he told some people here that I am his property because they were always asking me when I am going to marry Long Profile. Gilbert did much the same, pursuing me with horror. He had a little excuse but when I had a showdown with both of them, they did agree that there was never any question in heaven that I ought to marry them. My second novel was that argument. It defeated Long Profile. He just hits that one: “You ought to die.” I don’t see him personally. He’s a V.I.P.
This letter was initially published in the Chimurenga 5:Head/Body(&Tools)/Corpses (April 2004) with permission, courtesy of Khama III Museum in Serowe.
Bessie Head is the author of five novels including A Question of Power and Maru. This letter is drawn from correspondence between Head and Tom Calvin, a fan. Published in the Chimurenga 5 with permission, courtesy of Khama III Museum in Serowe.